Since the November election, 240 California prisoners facing potential life sentences have been set free. That's because voters changed California's tough three strikes sentencing law.
As NPR reported in 2009, that law sent thousands of people to prison for terms of 25 years to life for minor, nonviolent crimes. Now those prisoners can ask the court to have their sentences reduced.
One of those set free under the new law is Shane Reams. He owes his freedom in no small part to his mother Sue's 17-year campaign to change the law.
Sue Reams and her husband picked Shane up outside of Ironwood State Prison, way out in the California desert, on the morning the day before Easter.
"I just caught him and sobbed," she says. "I probably didn't let him go for 5,10 minutes maybe."
"She choked the air out of me," Shane says. "It was an amazing feeling. It felt like we won. I just kept saying, 'We won, we won.' "
Before that moment, Shane had served about 17 years of his potential life sentence. He got his third strike for being involved in the sale of a $20 rock of cocaine. He says he was a bystander. The prosecution said he was a lookout. But it was Shane's first two strikes that caused his mother such heartache, as she said in a 2009 interview with NPR. She'd been trying to get her son off drugs, she explained. Nothing seemed to work, so she tried tough love.
"Tough love tells you that you take a stand," she said. "So I took a stand."
That meant when her son stole some stuff from her house — and from the neighbors — to get money for drugs, Reams insisted he turn himself in. She even drove him to the police station. She told him: "Maybe you'll get a drug program. You need a drug program."
Instead he got convicted of two counts of residential burglary. A few years later when he got picked up on the drug charge, those burglaries counted as his first two strikes. As Reams said in 2009, she felt partly responsible for her son's life sentence. "I'm angry with myself. I feel terribly guilty. I guess that's why I've worked so long to try and change the law."
She worked with an organization called Families to Amend California's Three Strikes. She told her story to anyone who wanted an interview. She campaigned for a 2004 ballot measure to reform the law. It failed. She kept going. Meanwhile, Shane was not helping the cause, at least not for his first few years behind bars.
"I was in a prison gang," he says bluntly. "I was involved in a lot of nonsense that was taking place within the prison."
"When he first went in, he kind of gave up," explains his mother. "That life sentence loomed in front of him, and I guess he kind of gave up. But he knew that I wasn't going to give up on him."
It started to occur to Shane that if his mother was going all over the state saying he didn't deserve to be in prison, he needed to start acting like it. So he went to just about any group the prison offered: Gangs Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and a support group for lifers. He put in hours in the prison law library. He took college courses, mostly sociology and psychology.
"Those courses made me look within and see why I did the things that I did," he says.
In March, when Shane's case was brought back to court, he was sentenced to eight years for that drug charge, less than half of what he'd already served. Now, at the age of 44, he's beginning a whole new life. A week after his release, he moved to Memphis, where his fiancee lives. They had a son together before he went in. Now they plan to get married.
But Sue Reams says her life won't change that much. She believes that the initiative that reformed the three strikes law didn't go far enough. She's not giving up the campaign.
"For me this has become a way of life," she says. "People are [still] in [prison] for stealing baby food, for stupid things. And they don't deserve a life sentence for that."
Reams may have begun her efforts to reform the three strikes law to free her son, but she says all of the people engaged in this cause are her family now.
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